21 November 2017

Stagedoom: A Caprice by Bob Thompson

"El si pronuncian y la mano alargan/
Al primero que llega."

"They swear to be faithful yet marry the first man who proposes."
Sometimes the way in to a picture begins with an emotional frisson.  Aesthetic appreciation or  historical underpinnings may add layers to the experience but the visceral response never lets go.   Stagedoom by Bob Thompson (1937-1966), one of several works the artist made  based on Francisco Goya's Los Caprichos of 1795-97, is that kind of work.  

In Goya's original (below), all the participants are morally compromised, from the nubile woman offering herself to the highest bidder and the church fathers who guide her, to the watching crowd.   Thompson made significant alterations to the image for Stagedoom.   Her nakedness emphasizes the young woman's vulnerability at the same time that the mask she wears dehumanizes her by hiding her facial expression.  The priests offer no comfort; their teachings imprison her.  And who could doubt the evil intentions of the hovering bird-like creatures, a frequent feature in Goya's Los Caprichos, although not in this particular plate. Not only do Goya's birds subject their victims to tortures but  implicate  the viewers in their sadism with obscene glee, these very characteristics are what Thompson wanted to add.   The smiling death's head gives the game away.

Stagedoom, painted in 1962, the year Thompson visited Spain, exhibits a marked understanding of  the painful road to womanhood with its potential for physical and emotional violation.   In Goya's acerbic prints, Thompson recognized "the common prejudices and deceitful practices which custom, ignorance or self-interest have made usual " he had experienced during his Kentucky childhood.
In an alternative  history of post-war art the paintings of Bob Thompson  would occupy a prominent place.  Though only thirty-nine when he died from a heroin overdose, Thompson (1937-1966) left behind more than a thousand paintings and drawings.  Born in Louisville, Kentucky, Thompson studied art at university there; his most influential professors were refugees from Nazi Germany. Through them came to appreciate  German Expressionist art of the early 20th century with its distortions of form and color used to express emotion; their influence is there to be seen in Stage Doom.

Based in New York during the 1960s when the city was the center of the art world, he frequented the Five Spot jazz club where he met avant-garde jazz musicians Ornette Coleman and Charlie Haden, whose likenesses appeared in his paintings. He also took part in 'happenings' with fellow artist Red Grooms; it was at this time that Thompson's paintings took on a theatrical aspect.

Stagedoom  also shows the influences of Abstract Expressionism and  the  saturated colors of Pop Art.  Unlike Andy Warhol, whose appropriation of advertising images constituted a poke in the eye to all but a knowing few when they were made, Bob Thompson worked in utter, bold seriousness.   The artists he revered, Piero della Francesca, Titian, and Nicolas Poussin, all masters of classical European art,  gave him a symbolic vocabulary.  Their compositions provided Thompson a ready scaffolding for his technicolor nightmares of human and animal  interactions,   illustrating the varieties of human folly, as Goya had.

I began to think, my god, I look at Poussin and think he's got it all there.  Why are all these people running around trying to be original when they should just go ahead and be themselves and that's the originality of it all...You can't draw a new form... [the] human figure almost encompasses every form there is...it hit me that why don't I work with these things that are already there...because that is what I respond to most of all.” - Bob Thompson
I think...painting should be like the theater, a presentation of something...To relate, like painters of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance... painters were employed to educate the people...they could walk into a cathedral, look at the wall and see what was happening...I am not specifically trying to do that...I have much more freedom, but in a certain way, I am trying to show what' happening, what's going on,,,in my own private way.” - Bob Thompson

Images:
1. Bob Thompson - Stagedoom, 1962,  gouache (opaque watercolor) and charcoal on woven paper, approximately 21 x 18 inches, Munson-Williams-Proctor Art Institute, Utica.
2. Francisco Goya - El si pronuncian y la mano alargan, plate number 2 from Los Caprichos, c. 1795-97,  intaglio print, Brooklyn Museum.

No comments: